Gerald Meyer Remembers Peter Roman

I owe a great deal of gratitude to Peter Roman. He saved my professional life—and more. In 1969, I stumbled upon Peter, who, with his wife, Gail had moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn (what at that time was a lower-rent district), on the same block that my wife and I had earlier moved to. We quickly discovered that we were involved, up to our necks, with “the movement.” In addition to the civil rights and anti-war movements, Peter and I shared, deeply, a belief in the centrality of the labor movement as the prime means of achieving social justice. At that time, I was working in what was then called, Newark College of Engineering; Peter who was working as a reporter for The National Guardian (later named The Guardian), had been assigned to cover the Newark Teachers Union’s second, and equally militant, strike. In a supportive role, I had been involved with this complex struggle. I offered to introduce Peter to the officers and the on-the-ground leaders of this prolonged strike. Ultimately, Peter wrote important articles and the teachers won the strike. The cost was great. Over two-hundred teachers and one supporter, were sentenced to prison for terms ranging from ten days to more than one year for defying a court writ forbidding the strike. That jail term and my “encouragement” of a month-long student strike in response to the murder of four nonviolent peace protesters in Kent State University in Ohio cost me my job.

In the summer of 1972. I was preparing to return to my previous position as a caseworker, in the NYC Dept. of Social Services, in the South Bronx, when I received a call from Peter informing me that a position had opened in the Social Sciences Dept. which he chaired, in the recently founded Hostos Community College (CUNY), in the South Bronx.

Peter Roman had begun teaching at Hostos in September 1971, the second year Hostos began giving classes. At Hostos, Peter was like a fish in water. He was uniquely suitable for the job. He had attended Princeton, where he concentrated in Latin American Studies. Previously, while on a one-year stay in Chile he had learned Spanish fluently, and he became a socialist. At that time, Hostos was a bilingual college, a school where students who knew little or no English could begin their studies in Spanish while learning English. Hostos was as close to being a bilingual college as any other institution of higher learning in the United States. Peter’s fluency in Spanish and his knowledge of Latin American history enabled him to teach courses relevant to Hostos’ students, in Spanish.
Prior to becoming the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) Chapter Chair, Peter played a major role in saving the lives of Chilean refugees by working with the Hostos administration to arrange commitments of employment, which enabled them to obtain visas. Outside of Hostos, he helped obtain work permits for at least one Brazilian refugee. Peter also played the key role in obtaining an appointment at Hostos for Dr. Herbert Aptheker, the renowned historian of African-American history and the literary executor of his close colleague, W. E. B. Du Bois, who because of his political views and activities had been barred from Academia.
Peter consistently supported the campaigns of the five-year-long movement (1973 to 1978) to Save Hostos, which was threatened with closure during New York City’s financial crisis. He wrote letters on behalf of this struggle to public officials and twice had letters published in The New York Times. He lobbied, and of course he could always be seen in the ranks of the luchadores (those who struggle). Peter helped to bring Hostos’ cause to wider audiences necessary for the magnificent victory of saving Hostos Community College. He is one of the giants responsible for what was for that period the most successful mass movement in New York City.

From the Fall 1978 to 1984, Peter served two terms as the PSC Chair. From that position, he negotiated an agreement with then-President Flora Edwards to limit enrollment to twenty students in all developmental courses, and won battles to save the jobs of individuals who had been treated unfairly by the administration.

Subsequently, Peter played a leading role on academic committees, groups advocating for our college, the union, and left organizations such as the Hostos Solidarity Coalition that brought together the fight against Apartheid, support for Nicaragua, and the struggle for social justice here in America.

Over time, Peter’s major energies shifted to lecturing and publishing about Cuba. In so doing, he became a recognized scholar/spokesperson for Cuba’s democratic features found in their workers communal and occupational experiences that were unavailable to their counterparts in “democratic” countries. For many years, he maintained an especially close relationship, both as a contributor and a member of its board, with the journal, Socialism and Democracy.

If Peter had written his own obituary, he would have put all that has been noted above after talking about his family: his wife Gail, his daughter Hannah and son Karl.

Peter Roman put his life to good purpose. He would have loved to have heard a song that in years gone by was sung at the wakes of people’s heroes: “To you beloved comrade we give you our vow—the fight will go on.” If we do not know its melody, we can hear it in our hearts.

Remembering Peter Roman (1941-2020)

Peter Roman, Professor Emeritus in the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department, longtime S&D editorial board member, and a well-known scholar on Cuban politics, died on July 20, 2020, at the age of 79. Prof. Roman taught at Hostos for nearly fifty years, from 1971 to 2019, when he eventually retired. Uncompromising, unconventional, and fiery, he was an outstanding political scientist and educator who inspired and mentored countless numbers of students with his powerful teaching and his activism.

Peter was born on March 16, 1941 in Los Angeles, and as a boy there (a fact that will surprise many) he had a brief run in Hollywood, starring in the film You Gotta Stay Happy (1948), the family TV series The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse (1953), and Tales of the Texas Rangers (1955). Peter later attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1961. He then studied at Princeton University, earning MA and Ph.D. degrees in Political Science.

Peter began his academic career at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he taught from 1967 to 1969. After working briefly as a journalist for The National Guardian in New York he joined Hostos Community College in 1971. One of the first faculty hired in the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department, Peter quickly distinguished himself as a captivating teacher, active unionist, and crusader for academic freedom and faculty rights. In 1976, when New York State planned to close Hostos, he was active in the Save Hostos Committee, fighting successfully along with students and other faculty to keep the college’s mission alive.

During the late seventies, Peter served as chairperson of the Behavioral-Social Sciences Department and chapter chairperson of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the faculty union at CUNY. He then became the coordinator of the Social Sciences Unit, a position he held until 2018, a year prior to his retiring. Among other notable contributions to the college, he spearheaded the “Social Sciences Speakers Series,” bringing to the campus eminent scholars such as Eric Foner, David Nasaw, David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, among many others.

A recipient of numerous scholarly awards (including six PSC CUNY Research awards and four CUNY-Caribbean Exchange Program Grants), Prof. Roman published People’s Power: Cuba’s Experience with Representative Government in 1999. The book made a strong impact on Cuban studies and comparative government. Offering a candid discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Castro’s socialist democracy, Peter compelled readers to look at Cuba in a different way. “This well-researched and -written book,” wrote Political Affairs, “will come as a revelation to many readers. People’s Power, based on years of fieldwork and first-hand experience of Cuban elections and the workings of representative bodies, demonstrates that there is a functioning popular democratic political culture as the basis of the Cuban government.” A testament to its influence on the field, the book was reprinted in 2003 by Rowman & Littlefield.

Following the book’s publication, Peter was promoted to Full Professor and in 2000 served as a professor of political science at the Graduate School of the City University of New York (CUNY Graduate Center).  In addition to People’s Power, he coedited several special journal issues on Cuba and published numerous articles and reviews in political science periodicals, including “Electing Cuba’s National Assembly Deputies,” for the European Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (2007); “The Lawmaking Process in Cuba,” for Socialism and Democracy  (2005) and “The National Assembly and Political Representation,” in Cuban Socialism in a New Century (University Press of Florida, 2004). His latest, unpublished, research focused on Cuba’s new constitutional and electoral laws.

In addition to his CUNY affiliation, Peter Roman was an associate member of the Columbia University Latin American Seminar and had served on the editorial board of the journal Socialism and Democracy since 1985. Between 1979 and 1988, he was an editorial associate at the Institute for Theoretical History and was also a frequent guest on the Canadian radio program “The Cuban Hour” and on public radio programs in New York City and Colorado.

A popular and well-respected instructor, Prof. Roman regularly taught American government at Hostos and developed a new course on the Comparative Political Systems of Latin America, for which he regularly invited diplomats and scholars of Latin America as guests to the class. Among the most impressive events that he helped organize was the campus visit, on May 9, 2013, of Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez, then the Cuban Ambassador to the United Nations, who spoke to students, faculty, and staff in a packed A-Atrium about Cuba’s history, the U.S. embargo, and the island’s future.

Peter believed it is important that students learn and understand the historical significance and relevance of world events that are often not readily available and worked relentlessly to facilitate an open dialogue and learning both inside and outside the classroom.

Peter Roman is survived by his wife of over fifty years and two children.